Are Grades Fair?

Grades are often seen as fair and accurate. But what if they actually recreate violence and inequality?

Photo by RODNAE (2021).

Within schools, students are believed to be equal. Yet, by treating students in an unequal society as equal, schools and teachers recreate social inequality and are symbolically violent.

A painting of Ezra Stiles circa 1770 (Wikimedia Commons 2014)

Ezra Stiles was the first person to use a grading scale in the United States in 1785.

Teachers didn’t initially release grades because they didn’t want students to compete and lose focus.

Despite that, grading in the United States became more “standardised, objective and scale-based” in the early 1900s due to the high number of students in compulsory education.

Compulsory education created a need for a more structured and organised grading system that schools and third parties could use and understand. As a result, grades became standardised and widespread.

However, the current grading system wasn’t widely used until the 1940s, and it became popular because it improved communication between institutions.

“Grading is a way to communicate information with great efficiency — but the information is by nature, incomplete.” — Professor Christine Lee.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio (2020)

1.Grades don’t directly measure student knowledge.

Grading is meant to evaluate a student’s knowledge and performance. Yet, some in the field see grades as unreliable because they include other factors such as attendance and behaviour, which don’t directly measure student knowledge.

2. Teachers are prone to biases that cause grading inequalities.

Photo by Daniel Reche (2016)

Teachers have racial biases which cause grading inequalities.

Studies show that white teachers see black students as more disruptive and less mature than white students.

Black students are also more likely to get into trouble than white students for making noise or being disrespectful in class. They’re also more likely than white students to get sent to the principal’s office or get suspended for the same behaviour.

Some teachers are more likely to react to stereotypes about students than to students themselves, causing them to grade white students higher than black students.

Working in stressful conditions worsens a teacher’s racial bias towards black students, especially in low-resourced schools.

When teachers are stressed, they become more prone to racial prejudice, and they’re likely to use grades as a method of control.

Teachers also favour students who are either white (or light-skinned), talented, middle class, or those who behave as white or middle class.

This means that students who aren’t white or middle-class are constantly discriminated against based on their intellect (or perceived lack thereof), physical appearance, accent, and social class.

3. Education is mistaken as neutral and colourless.

Photo by Cottonbro (2021)

Education is the transmission of a society’s combined values and knowledge. However, this definition doesn’t mention that the knowledge and values in education belong to the dominant culture.

According to ScienceDaily, Western culture is European “social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies.”

Christianity and colonialism “spread European ways of life and educational methods” worldwide, making Western culture today's dominant global culture.

However, French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron warn that education isn’t as neutral and equal as it seems.

They argue that education is symbolically violent when it has the hidden agenda of spreading the values and culture of the dominant group and excluding non-dominant groups through seemingly neutral meanings and institutions.

Therefore, by appearing as fair and neutral, Western education is symbolically violent.

For example, Western schools are presented as being for educational purposes. Yet, they were actually designed to spread the colonizer’s language, religion, and values in the colonies.

Many people think that the purpose of grading in Western education is to measure a student’s understanding of the objective knowledge collected by society. Instead, it actually measures a student’s knowledge of, and compliance with, Western culture and whiteness.

4. Grading assumes that students have the same parents, resources, and circumstances.

Photo by Karolina Grawbowski (2020)

Performance in school depends on how much access students have to resources and opportunities. In his article, Evan Mandery shows how unequal access to resources and opportunities reproduces inequality among students.

According to Mandery, wealthy parents spend seven times more than less affluent parents on tutors and extracurricular activities. These learning aids help to improve rich kids’ math and literacy skills up to 37% by age four.

Affluent parents in the United States are 50% more likely to pass down their ‘economic advantage’ to their children.

Yet, teachers don’t often consider these socioeconomic differences when grading, which puts non-wealthy students at a disadvantage.

Making attendance compulsory for classes happening via Zoom or Webex also creates a problem for non-affluent students who can’t always attend class and don’t always have access to a working device and a reliable internet connection.

Teachers recreate social inequality when they assume that all students have enough time, support, and resources to do well in school.

5. Grades don’t factor in teacher bias or incompetence.

Photo by Skitterphoto (2015)

When students don’t do well, it’s just assumed that they didn’t try hard enough or aren’t good enough.

People rarely question the teacher’s role in a student’s poor performance because many believe that teachers are as fair and competent as they’re presented to be.


Since Ezra Stiles first used them in 1785, grades have been presented as a fair, neutral, and accurate measure of student knowledge and performance.

However, the current grading system grew popular for its ability to make communication between institutions more efficient, not because it fairly and accurately assesses student knowledge and performance.

Teachers have racial biases, which cause grading inequalities between black and white students. They also assume students have the same circumstances, resources, and opportunities, which further disadvantages students of fewer means.

Despite this, teachers are still seen as legitimate and qualified professionals who are fair, objective, and calm under pressure.

A contributing factor to this perception of teachers could be that education is mistaken as neutral, colourless, and transmitting society’s collective knowledge and values.

However, Western education is symbolically violent because it presents itself as fair and neutral. However, it was actually designed to spread the values and knowledge of Western culture, which exclude non-dominant groups.

Ultimately, schools, teachers, and grades reproduce social inequality and symbolic violence.

If people continue to think that Western education is fair and neutral, non-white, non-middle-class students will continue to be excluded and disadvantaged by its hidden goal of furthering Western culture and white supremacy.

I make important information about society and social life accessible, relatable and easy to understand. I also question what’s ‘real’ or ‘normal’.

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